Last year I experimented with various veggie lacto-fermentation projects, like kimchi and pickles. I also ran a test to see if I could come up with a decent sriracha, and found the results exceeded my expectations.
This year, I decided to try out using an air lock, instead of worrying about ziploc baggies filled with brine, or weights, or other pesky workarounds to keep oxygen out of the ferment. Once you try an airlock, you’ll never want to go back to the other way – the fact that there’s no spillage and leaking from the expansion of the brine over the rim of the jar is worth the minor hassle of tracking down the equipment. You also can get away with using much less salt, since no oxygen will be creeping in and causing mold. What’s not to love?
There are a few different ways to approach using an airlock fermentation system at home. The first, most elegant, and most expensive, is to purchase the Pickl-It jars, which use all-glass Fido canning jars with a bail top and have a food-safe grommet lined hole in the top glass lid for an airlock. These are really nice, and should hold up for years with basic good sense and care.
If you want to save a few bucks, you can also try out the method outlined by Northwest Edible Life – use a ReCap lid with a #6 drilled rubber stopper for the spout opening to hold the airlock. This is the way I did things for some larger batches, and it worked beautifully.
Another option, which I’m using for a teeny-tiny batch of super hot ghost pepper sriracha, is to use a drilled rubber stopper with an airlock in a glass milk bottle. I stole the idea from Mr. Dave at the Ridiculous Food Society of Upstate New York‘s tweet about this year’s pepper sauce making. It’s simple, and quick to set up if you already have a bottle or two lying around. A size 7 ½ stopper worked on the bottle I used, but to be sure, you may want to bring your bottle to a brew store and try out a few different sizes in person.
If you are in the Albany NY or Boston MA area, I highly recommend the Homebrew Emporium for airlock and stopper supplies. I use the s-shape airlocks, but other people prefer the two part kind as they’re easier to clean. I find the s-shape ones to be more cat proof, and I need all the backup I can get since I’m plagued by three felines who are incredibly nosy.
For a 2% salt brine, use 5 grams kosher salt per 8 oz filtered water. I also like to add some sugar to kick start fermentation, at least a teaspoon, up to a tablespoon per 8 oz salt solution. Pickl-It has a terrific calculator to figure out salt amounts to get different percentage concentrations if you want to experiment.
Simplicity itself. Just round up your peppers, garlic and other fruits you may want to experiment with, slice and dice, toss in the jar and cover with brine. My favorite mild sauce this year has used 2 peaches, with the skin, about a pound of sweet red peppers, half a head of garlic, a couple of green jalapeños and a handful of red Thai bird chilis. You don’t need to worry much about proportions, and there’s a lot of wiggle room with pepper choices. My only caveat is to stick to mostly red ones, like ripe jalapeños, the Thai bird peppers, red or orange habaneros, and the like. In my experience, red Hungarian wax peppers and cayenne peppers made a gross, bitter, nasty hot sauce that was an abomination. Learn from my fail!
Once you’ve poured in your brine to cover by about a half inch to an inch, just close up the lid, set up your airlock and let things percolate on the counter, or in a dark cupboard. You’ll see things get puffy, and there will be some separation of the veggies from the brine, but that is fine.
Fermentation takes a couple of days to get started on most kitchen counters at room temperature. You’ll see the bubbles, and then the airlocks will start really chugging along. I let mine go for at least a week, more if we can hold out.
Making the Final Sauce
When you are ready for sauce time, strain out the veggies and reserve the excess brine. I like to puree the peppers directly in the jar (works if you use a hand blender in a wide mouth Mason jar), and add any brine if it seems too thick. This is purely up to you – some people like a really watery tabasco style sauce, while others, like myself, prefer a thicker one like sriracha or harissa.
If you want to be able to cap your sauce tightly in the fridge, you should heat it up in a non-reactive saucepan to about 170 degrees to kill off the active lacto bacteria and stop fermentation. Otherwise, if you put a ReCap on it, thinking it’ll be a great pourable sauce, it may explode in your fridge once pressure builds up. Guess how I know! I prefer to keep the good bacteria alive, so NOW I just make sure not to seal the caps tightly. Living and learning! All versions, pasteurized or not, should be stored in the fridge.